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Belfast Samaritans help pick up the pieces

At 46 Stranmillis Road the phone jangled for the 20th or 30th time that day. It might have been one of the many calls Belfast Samaritans get from a city thrown into despair by the trouble in Northern Ireland.

It wasn't.

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A terse, educated voice informed the volunteer who answered that a bomb would explode in the city center in 10 minutes. He gave the address and abruptly rang off.

"We frequently get the bomb warnings," says Jack, a Belfast Samaritan who asked not to be identified further. "It's very sinister. It upsets some of our older people. Sometimes a caller is very rushed and it's very hard to tell exactly what the voice said."

Though many of the bomb calls turn out to be hoaxes, all are immediately referred to the police, Jack explains.

The Belfast Samaritans, founded in 1961, also receive calls from would-be murderers. "People phone us and say, 'Tell so-and-so he's going to be shot,' but they don't even give you an address," says Jack. "If they murder somebody, they never ring us. They ring the newspapers."

The Samaritans exist in Britain, Ireland, and a number of other countries to provide practical help to the worried, despairing, and suicidal. The turbulence in the province, Jack asserts, has placed great strain on family life here.

Marital difficulties top the list of problems that Belfast Samaritans deal with daily -- followed closely by "other relationship problems" and then by depression, accommodation woes, worry, alcoholism, and "disspiritment."

"There has been an increase in the number of young people coming to us," says Jack, "and we're now treating lower bracket teen-agers for drinking." Friends or family will sometimes call to ask what can be done about a young person's drinking.

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People in West Belfast call the Samaritans to say they can't sleep or to talk over problems with children who have become increasingly unruly in the grim revolutionary atmosphere that pervades the district. Others will call in a depressed state to ask how long must Ulster be racked by violence. Some of those who call the Samaritans have husbands in prison. "You've got to be supportive," says Jack, "and try to keep them going until their men come out."

Sometimes a Catholic married to a Protestant (or vice versa) may call to lament the hate and prejudice they experience living in one or other of the warring communities. "There are only certain areas where they can live," says Jack. "A lot emigrate to England and Scotland."

At times some of the 202 active volunteers at the Belfast branch of the Samaritans become overwhelmed by the sadness of what they hear. "There are times when we are both in tears," says Jack. In the past he has helped the wife of a prison officer who was shot dead. He's reluctant, however, to provide details of such cases, as the Samaritans insist on confidentiality and anonymity.

"The only way things are going to improve in Northern Ireland is when people's consciences bite home," he insists gravely. "When you start having an unstable society, you don't know where it's going to end.

"I frequently feel at a loss at the tragic loss of life and the disaster that comes to families."

In Belfast, he says, the Samaritans "find ourselves picking up the pieces."

Although the province's suicide rate has remained steady in recent years (actually going down when the trobles were at their height in the early 1970s), Jack notes that suicides are on the rise among policemen and prison officers.

He says that policemen have to endure extraordinary pressures -- such as working a 60-70 hour week, often in riot conditions -- all of which contribute to an "atmosphere of disaster."

Children are "under particular stress" in West Belfast he continues. It is here in such areas as the Falls Road, Bally Murphy, Turf Lodge, and Andersons Town that the Provisional wing of the illegal Irish Republican Army (IRA) conceals itself among the Catholic population, frequently striking at the security forces that pat rol the area.

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